Cities are one of the most basic units of governance. Because of this, their democratic institutions are flexible and responsive to their residents’ specific needs. Their city planners can paint with a small brush, designing policies that cater to specific problems endemic to certain communities. Obtaining community consent for projects is a real, achievable goal.
Cities often don’t live up to these aspirational democratic ideals. However, they are generally more precise in their response to local issues in ways that the state or federal government simply cannot be. Sweeping federal policy overhauls tend to disregard the individual circumstances that plague different communities.
Fighting climate change is one area where the importance of municipal government is clear. Climate change is extraordinarily variable across cities. Different cities have different challenges, which result in different solutions. Cities like Washington, D.C. are designed in a relatively compact, grid-like way, which allows them to embrace certain public transit infrastructure that other cities cannot implement. Some cities are much wealthier than others and can afford to take bigger steps toward mitigation. Some cities, like Jakarta, Indonesia, are very literally sinking into the sea and must take steps to adapt before they can mitigate. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans needed to recover and implement adaptation measures all before carbon emissions could be considered.
Copenhagen is located in a blustery, windy area of the world. Therefore, they are able to supply much of their population with wind power. They have strong democratic institutions and their population is wealthy, which enables them to set high goals and high taxes.
Right here in our backyard, Hartford has been taking steps to mitigate climate change and adopt smart land-use patterns. Their award-winning zoning laws, adopted in 2016, have been instrumental in this process. For instance, developers who build near transit hubs have their parking requirements relaxed, cutting costs for them and incentivizing smart growth. The zoning code also encourages smart water management, green infrastructure and efficient energy use in large buildings.
One of Miami’s most pressing issues is sea level rise. Large swaths of the beach paradise will be underwater at some point in the next fifty years. In response, Miami citizens voted to tax themselves to start a coastal resiliency fund. This fund will be a resource for projects which attempt to adapt to the inevitable effects of climate change and sea level rise.
Many cities in the global south have basic institutions to build and social networks to fortify before they can attempt to make strides in climate mitigation. The emerging megacity of Lagos, Nigeria is dealing with a housing crisis. The city has been clearing slums to make way for high-rise apartments, leading to rising housing costs and social unrest. Before they take on climate change, they must build the foundations of an equitable city. Forcing broad, inflexible country-wide policy on a city like Lagos could be disastrous.
The point is, different situations call for different measures. Any federal or state climate change mitigation or adaptation program should be designed with this in mind. I would love to see more federal programs which actually delegate power to cities and communities, so they can make decisions that best suit their individual needs.
Let’s empower decision makers that are closest to their constituents. Let’s fight climate change with local power and local decision making. It’s the only way to combat such a convoluted problem.
Harry Zehner is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.